I shared my thoughts on shutting down Stephen Strasburg already, but identifying a problem without a solution is easy to do. So Let’s assume for a minute that Strasburg’s innings did need to be limited. Let’s assume the Nationals have sound reasoning for making that decision and no matter what, Mr Strasburg would have to be limited over the course of the season based on innings alone. Here are a few ways in which we may have been able to see a little more Strasburg.
First, we need a little background. Where were the Nationals at the beginning of the season? While the team may have expected this type of performance, the general concensus was that the Braves and Phillies were the teams to beat with the Marlins looking like a threat with their big moves. In my prediction for the season, I pegged them at second place in the NL East and missing the Wild Card. On Opening Day, the Nationals had a full rotation and sent their 2010 Opening Day Starter and 2011 team leader in wins to AAA. In the bullpen, their lights out closer, Drew Storen, was on the Disabled List and a Brad Lidge/Henry Rodriguez committee was handling the ninth inning. So, how could the Nationals have handled this?
The 6-Man Rotation
Simply add Lannan back to the rotation and proceed with six starters. Theextra day of rest would help lengthen the season for Strasburg. As he took the mound 28 times in 2012, the theory would be that he would have started only 24 games so far and limited his innings by roughly 22 innings.
There’s a significant problem with this idea though. John Lannan is the 6th best starter on your team and you’d be giving him 20 turns on the mound and sacrificing a handful of starts each from guys like Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmerman as well. Would a 6-man rotation have hurt the pitcher’s preparation? Would Gonzalez still be a Cy Young candidate? More pressing for the team would be the additional roster spot this would use up. Would Lannan be taking up a needed arm in the pen or a player off the bench?
The 4.5-Man Rotation
Another idea I’ve thrown out in the past is rethinking the 5-man rotation. If Gonzalez, Jackson, Zimmerman and Detwiler are all healthy and ready to play some ball, why not stretch them out and put Strasburg in the swing man slot? The benefits would be running out your 4 excellent starters an additional 3-4 starts per year, maintaining a 4-days rest schedule, but also limiting your prized possession. Strasburg’s presence in the bullpen could contribute to the closer by committee strategy or he could be the strongest bridge to the ninth inning in baseball. If used properly, the argument for a Cy Young or even MVP wouldn’t be out of line.
The issue goes back to the organizational philosophy. Would the Nationals be willing to put any of their starters under the stress of 230+ innings the 4.5 man rotation would require? A 5.5 man rotation would also be an option, but again, the issues of roster spaces come up as does Lannan getting starts that would go to better pitchers.
On the surface, I think the idea of Strasburg in the bullpen is absurd. Starting pitchers are in their position because they are the best pitchers on your team. That’s why you want them out there for (hopefully) 2/3 of the game before giving way to the cast in the bullpen. Burying a talent like Strasburg in the pen would be a waste of his talents, especially given his ability to pitch 6-7 innings at a time.
That said, we’re not interested in just performance, we need to limit innings. With bullpen questions swirling, why not put another 100 mph fireballer in the mix? While Rodriguez and Lidge had a lights out Springs, Strasburg’s arm would have been welcome. When Lidge and Rodriguez both flamed out, again, Strasburg’s arm would have been welcome.
Storen would eventually return to the team in mid-July. With his return, Strasburg’s arm would be free to return to the rotation and replace the weakest link (perfect time to trade that #5?). Even the most grueling estimate would place Strasburg at 50-60 innings pitched in the first half, saving him 30-40 innings of wear. Strasburg could then join the rotation with the hopes of hitting his 160 inning limit at the conclusion of the regular season or even in the playoffs.
In case you’re wondering how a scenario like this might work, take a look at Kris Medlen of the Atlanta Braves. Medlen has Tommy John surgery in August of 2010. He came back for a brief return last September in a relief role. He started the season in the bullpen and made his first start on July 31st. While he took a while to stretch out fully, by his fourth start he had a complete game shutout under his belt and threw another complete game three starts later. Medlen has pitched a total of 110 innings so far in 2012 and at this moment is the best starter on the Braves’ staff (7-0, 0.81 ERA, 53/7 K/BB, 55.2 IP since joining the rotation).
Now, it can’t be assumed that Strasburg would have pitched as well as Medlen, but the ability for a pitcher whose injury and recovery were so similar to be so effective and strong on the mound can’t be ignored.
In the end, I feel the Nationals have mishandled this situation from the start. Their plans were short-sighted all along. With the decisions made and Strasburg done for the year, there’s nothing else to be done, but this is a situation that easily could have been avoided.